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A Seminal Event In The Development Of Workers’ Compensation

Through the years it’s been said that workers’ compensation is the result of a “grand bargain” between employers and employees. A tragic event more than 100 years ago was one of the impulses that led to the pact.

An article on the PBS website notes that the shirtwaist blouse was “[a] popular fashion item of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” The article goes on as follows:

“[T]he shirtwaist blouse was regarded as the model shirt for the independent, working woman. A button-down blouse, the functional shirtwaist was valued for its ready-to-wear, workplace appeal and its simple design, originally modeled on menswear shirts. . . . An article written for the Pittsburgh Press on September 16, 1906, stated, ‘A very fashionable woman with a half a hundred waists boasts that there are no two alike.’

. . . .

“The shirtwaist . . . came to represent more than a momentary fashion trend; the blouse was a symbol of newfound female independence in a time of progressive ideas. With their own jobs and wages, women were no longer dependent on men and sought new privileges at home and at work. The figure of the working woman, wearing the shirtwaist blouse and freed from domestic duties, was an iconic image for the women’s rights movement.”

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was one of many such factories in New York City. Most of its employees were women who had recently immigrated to the United States from Europe. What happened there casts an ironic light on the shirtwaist blouse as a symbol of the women’s rights movement.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory moved into a then-modern multistory Manhattan building in 1902, and by 1911 the factory encompassed three floors. The owners engaged in a common practice to discourage theft and unauthorized breaks: They locked a key door for entry and exit. As described in the PBS article, this action had a devastating result on March 11, 2011:

“When a tossed match or lit cigarette ignited a fire on the eighth floor of the building, flames spread quickly. Blanck and Harris [the owners] received warning by phone and escaped, but the 240 workers on the ninth floor continued stitching, oblivious to the flames gathering force on the floor below. When they finally did see the smoke, the women panicked. Some rushed toward the open stairwell, but columns of flames already blocked their path.

“A few workers managed to cram onto the elevator while others ran down an inadequate fire escape, which crumbled under the weight, crashing to the ground almost 100 feet below. The only remaining exit was a door that had been locked to prevent theft. The key was tucked into the pocket of the foreman, who listened to the women’s cries for help from the street. Hundreds of horrified onlookers arrived just in time to see young men and women jumping from the windows, framed by flames.”

Of the 240 employees on the ninth floor, 146 died – 123 women and 23 men. A Google search of “Triangle Shirtwaist Fire” produces sobering images of the many corpses of the people who chose to jump over being burned alive.

With the horse out of the barn, New York’s legislature decided to take action. The PBS article notes that “[w]ithin three years, more than 36 new state laws had passed regulating fire safety and the quality of workplace conditions. The landmark legislation gave New Yorkers the most comprehensive workplace safety laws in the country and became a model for the nation.”

One of the new laws that the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire spurred was a workers’ compensation system. A LexisNexis Legal Newsroom article states that “New York adopted a workers’ compensation law providing a prompt remedy for lost wages and health benefits for injured workers that soon became a model for other states and the federal government.”

It’s fair to say that many employers today would be aghast at the behavior of the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. On the other hand, it’s just as reasonable to note that the nation contains more than a few employers of the same ilk as the owners who locked the factory door. These days there is comfort in knowing that the workers’ compensation system already exists to help employees who suffer injury – at least for now.

Our enduring advice is that an employee injured at work should always seek legal counsel – and fast!

HammondTownsend is here to serve you.

Here are the links for the articles mentioned above:



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